Panera Bread is piloting Miso Robotics’ new automated coffee brewing system as it doubles down on its drink subscription program.
It’s part of a broader shift across the restaurant industry toward automation as many eateries struggle to find workers and labor costs rise. For example, McDonald’s is working to automate taking drive-thru orders, while California Pizza Kitchen has been testing a robot to help bus tables.
The automation trend has made Miso Robotics popular with both restaurant chains and investors. Last month, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it is testing a robot made by Miso that makes tortilla chips. The startup’s other fast-food partners include White Castle and Arby’s owner Inspire Brands.
Since its founding in 2016, Miso has crowdfunded more than $50 million from restaurant chains such as CaliBurger, venture capital firms and ordinary investors, according to the company. It’s in the middle of its Series E round, which values the startup at $500 million.
“We’ve seen an ever-increasing tidal wave of demand,” Miso Robotics CEO Mike Bell said in an interview. According to Bell, the the restaurant industry’s biggest problem is the labor gap, which is caused by restaurants needing more workers than are available. “And it’s not going away,” he said.
Miso’s latest launch is the CookRight Coffee system, which uses artificial intelligence to monitor coffee volume and temperature. It also provides predictive analytics that can tell the restaurant more about what kind of coffee its customers enjoy and when. Bell said that Miso charges customers “a few hundred dollars” a month for its CookRight technology, while the startup’s Flippy the Robot sets operators back several thousand dollars in monthly fees.
Panera’s goal for the system is to give employees more time to devote to other tasks, such as helping customers, and to make sure coffee drinkers enjoy every sip of their beverage, especially if they’re Unlimited Sip Club subscribers.
“We never saw this as cost savings or a defense against the labor market at all,” said George Hanson, Panera’s chief digital officer.
Panera launched the coffee and tea subscription program over two years ago after overhauling its coffee selection. For $8.99 a month, customers can drink an unlimited amount of coffee and tea. The low monthly cost of the program gives Panera an easy way to lure in customers and persuade them to change their breakfast habits.
For now, only two Panera locations are testing the CookRight Coffee system. Hanson said the chain will make a decision in the coming weeks about how fast and how much to scale across its footprint. Panera owns nearly half of its U.S. cafes, while franchisees operate the remaining 1,200 locations.
Bell said that Miso expects that thousands of its partners’ restaurants will have CookRight technology installed by the end of the year, as well as hundreds of Flippy the Robots.
When it comes to the rest of the kitchen, Hanson said that Panera will keep looking for more opportunities to automate tasks for its employees if it makes sense, but he doesn’t envision that its restaurants will be entirely run by robots in the future. However, to Bell, it’s a matter of when, not if, restaurants become automated.
“Opportunistically, if we see things like this that will help our associates, we’ll look at them,” Hanson said. “I do see the industry very curious about this, but maybe in some areas, I’ve seen that curiosity come from the cost of labor, and that’s just not our filter.”
The soup and sandwich chain is privately owned by Einstein Bros.’ parent company JAB Holding, so it doesn’t disclose how many Unlimited Sip Club subscribers it has. However, Panera announced in November it would go public again through an initial public offering after securing investments from restaurateur Danny Meyer and his special purpose acquisition company.
Other companies have recently delayed their IPOs due to inflation fears and market volatility. A representative for Panera declined to comment on if the chain has modified its plans.